Tuesday, October 30, 2012

(Originally published in TKP, 29th Oct 2013, link here: http://www.ekantipur.com/2012/10/29/related-article/voices-from-the-lab/362063.html )

The prime minister of Nepal recently invited a select group of scientists, academicians and researchers for a formal interaction programme. In a country where science and technology receives negligible interest, and subsequently less than adequate budget from the government, this has been seen as a very positive step. It would naturally have been next to impossible to have an in-depth discussion on each area of science in just over three hours, therefore, each of us were given two to three minutes to edify the gathering that included, besides the PM, the minister and secretary of environment, science and technology and the chief secretary, among others. Duly acknowledging the fact that it’s easier to complain than provide solutions, the following four issues and their solutions are presented.
Government apathy
Some years ago, the Science and Technology Ministry and the Environment Ministry were merged to form the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology. Isn’t environment a part of science and technology especially when we are discussing climate change and possible global warming? Further, the ministry had been assessing three incubation centres—space, nuclear and biotechnology—before it got merged.
Biotechnology, a field of science that has a huge scope in Nepal in terms of productivity, human resource mobilisation and revenue generation, was being seriously considered as the next government venture with support from the  Indian Department of Biotechnology. At a time when the country should be promoting S&T, just what prompted this government to do away with a whole ministry is beyond our reasoning. Thus the government, if it is serious about promoting S&T, needs to immediately reinstall the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST).
Political intervention
In the past two years, there have been three ministers and an equal number of secretaries at MoST. Every time there is a change in government, the minister has changed. This is understandable; but why change the ministry’s executive authority, the secretary? Political influence, no doubt, and this has been hurting the country more than any one can imagine. As a result, all government-linked institutions—the National Academy for Science and Technology (NAST), the National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) and others are performing under par. These organisations are meant to lead the country in various areas of research. Unfortunately, they are unable to do so.
How we scientists wish that political parties would for once think of the greater good of the country when it comes to science and technology. The time has now come for political parties to understand that improved S&T is for the benefit of the country, and the less their direct negative intervention, the faster we can get there.
Brain drain
It comes as no surprise that young scientists are leaving the country for greener pastures abroad. A majority of them would stay if there were enough incentives. Understandably, employment is limited but if the opportunity for entrepreneurship is provided by removing bureaucratic hurdles and giving tax incentives, there will be many who will at least attempt to initiate novel enterprise in science and technology right here in the country.
There are many bright young Nepali minds overseas, wanting and wishing to come back home to serve their country. The government and industry need to provide them at least a small platform to try their luck, as it were. This should be more a government responsibility because it has the authority to make favourable decisions for those wishing to come home to contribute to the country. One way to do this would be to develop incubation centres which will serve as centres of innovation for key areas such as biotechnology, physics, chemistry and others.
Inadequate infrastructure
Science and technology thrives on research and development, however, there needs to be strong infrastructural support to carry it out. Lack of electricity, lack of adequate clean water and, in many cases, lack of service and maintenance of equipment (due to budgetary constraints) are hurdles to efficient research activities. If anything, S&T research should be categorised as essential services as this would ensure that scientists and academicians will be able to carry out their work efficiently with access to the services they require. To do this, political will and government commitment is critical.
Need to collaborate
It is a sad truth that Nepal’s scientific community is also engrossed in a culture of self-promotion and self-praise. It may have something to do with the culture we have been brought up in. Whatever the cause, the scientific community would rather go for foreign collaboration for a small piece of the pie than intra-country partnership that would benefit them and the country in the long run. There is no point if five different groups working on similar projects do not even see eye to eye on the issue. The outcome of such work will be paltry, and not worth the funds required to conduct it. The community needs to understand that even a small collaborative research project carried out entirely by Nepalis in Nepal is respected as much as a project that is filled with international collaborators. If we help each other, we can climb much higher than we have ever been able to.
In conclusion, there is absolutely no doubt that there are problems not only in S&T but in most sectors in Nepal. At the same time, solutions are very few, and usually non-productive for the existing problems. However, every dark cloud has a silver lining, if we look at it from the correct angle. This is exactly how we must approach the problems our S&T sector is facing. Together, with adequate planning and leaving aside personal egos, we scientists can contribute towards improving the situation and helping S&T take Nepal towards further development. A complete paradigm shift in the academic and scientific sector is the need of the day.
Dixit is country director of the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal and is involved in public health biomedical research

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